The Fanciful Norwegian wrote:
can anybody tell us what the Chinese title Qing mei zhu ma means?
"Green plum, bamboo horse", an idiomatic term for (according to this
, anyway) "the innocent affection between a boy and a girl in their childhood" -- which in context seems rather more bitter than the vague English title, and arguably shifts the emphasis to boot.
Thanks for that. Seems a little mysterious or arch (given the absence of both innocent affection and youth with the central couple). I'm pretty sure "Taipei Story" is Yang's title. Can't remember specifically, but most Taiwanese films from this period are titled in English on the print (e.g. All the Youthful Days
, A Brighter Summer Day
Incidentally, where did you see That Day, on the Beach? Bootlegs have been floating around for awhile, but they seem to be sourced from a Cantonese-dubbed version, so I've been leery of taking the plunge (although I'm aware the Mandarin version is technically "dubbed" as well, as apparently were all Taiwanese films before A City of Sadness).
Archival 35mm print. Ditto for all of these, for instance:THE TERRORIZER
One of the greatest films of the 1980s, Yang's cool pseudo-thriller lurks in the shadows of Godard more than those of Antonioni (but there's still a fantastic sensitivity to alienated urban spaces and places), and it's a seemingly looser, more unruly film than the precise Taipei Story
. The appearance of unruliness is carefully contrived, however: this film is incredibly carefully constructed.
There are three discrete plot strands:
1) a young photographer breaks up with his girlfriend after stealing shots of a couple of young criminals escaping from a police shootout and becoming obsessed with the woman he obliquely rescues.
2) This young woman (the White Chick) returns to her mother's apartment and is locked in, where she amuses herself by wreaking havoc on the man who gave her gang away to the police by making prank phone calls.
3) A downtrodden scientist makes the most of an opportunity at work when his section chief dies; meanwhile, at home, his wife, starved for inspiration in her stifling marriage, faces writer's block. One day, the White Chick calls her up. . .
This is only the start of the intricate story, but I don't want to give too much away. That phone call, however, has extraordinary, catastrophic repercussions.
In today's film climate multi-stranded narratives are all over the place (in more ways than one), but they're largely spoilt for me by an oppressive, lazy overreliance on McFate to get all the ironies in order (e.g. The Edge of Heaven
and its post-Kieslowski ilk). What's most impressive about The Terrorizer
is its utter absence of coincidence. The cause and effect for every action is impeccably accounted for, so when Character A finally runs into Character F at Location C, there's the satisfying understanding of all the tiny details that have brought this to pass, not just the dull, ho-hum click of X happening because the author says it needs to. Yang's overarching method is revealed in miniature in several sequences, as when the writer wife goes to visit an old friend at his new offices on a sunny day, but her entry into the building is blocked by an unexplained, very localised sunshower. In the following scene, upstairs, she opens a window in her friend's new office and we can see, reflected in the tilted glass, a window washer in his cradle, thus accounting for the previous shower. Every effect in this film has its recoverable cause; everything is spatially and logically related. Some event might at first appear coincidental - the writer turning up on the photographer's doorstep, say - but figuring out how she got there sheds light on the whole world of the film.
I might have exagerrated before: there is a single coincidence in the film, but it's not one that has any bearing on the plot. It's the shot early in the film when the scientist drives past the White Chick. This is the only time when any of the characters meet without motivation, but it functions more as a reassurance on Yang's part to the viewer that, yes, all of these disparate threads are going to be tied up eventually (and it occurs at a time when we don't even really know who these characters are). The other big exception to this impeccable causality is the film's violent denouement, but this is, of course, no exception, since
this is all the futile fantasy of the scientist at the moment of his death.
It's very hard to talk about the beauty of this film's construction without giving away a lot of the fun of viewing it, but one of the things I love most about it is how its meticulousness makes the big cinematic effects all the more rewarding. When the White Chick sneaks into a darkened room, and the light turns on to reveal her form silhouetted against a gigantic photomontage of her face, it's a visual wow, but it's also a narrative wow, because we realise how and why that montage got there and how devious the plotting has been to deliver this character to this place at this moment in order to grant us an aesthetic coup. And then Yang delivers a further coup when the windows are opened and the giant face gets to flutter in the breeze.
Stylistically, this film is much more diverse than the comparatively classical Taipei Story
. The editing style seems to me more muscular than Yang's other films, somewhere between Pasolini's percussive, disorienting cutting and late-60s Godard's montage of objects. The film begins with a great blocky montage of disparate elements that gradually cohere into a story (empty streets with the sound of sirens, a body on the road, the photographer grabbing his camera, a hand holding a gun poking out a window and firing a shot). Later in the same sequence we get the film's first instances of direct eye-contact with the camera (the police chief addresses the photographer as if he were us, and vice versa), interspersed with subtle first-person footage (the photographer's view of the White Chick, a camera-eye without the obvious cues). Yang had briefly toyed with this kind of direct camera address in That Day, on the Beach
when locals spoke about De-wei's disappearance as if they were being interviewed for the local news, but Yang makes much subtler and more interesting use of the trope here. It's at its most powerful in the big dramatic scene in which the writer tells her husband exactly what's wrong with their marriage. It's a monologue delivered directly to camera, but its real power comes from the way in which the actress spends almost the entirety of the speech not
meeting the gaze of the camera, and by implication of her husband - a brilliantly acted and conceived scene.
Looking at Yang's films again, I'm also intrigued by the few traces of influence he's left in the work of other filmmakers. I noticed Hou making great use in Flight of the Red Balloon
of Yang's technique of shooting significant action through or in reflection, though Hou has always shared Yang's sense of the added power of pulling back rather than moving in for emotional effect. The Terrorizer
probably marks the pinnacle of Yang's use of this reflected distanciation, though he'd use it to breathtaking effect in Yi Yi
. Actually, glancing recently at The Ice Storm
suggested that Ang Lee had also learnt something about this from Yang.
Hong Sang-soo may well have adopted his custom of cutting directly to dream or fantasy sequences (thus concealing or making ambiguous their status) from The Terrorizer
, which makes particularly effective use of this technique. And even Wong Kar-wai, whose work doesn't resemble Yang's in many ways, must surely have been taking notes during the fabulous 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' montage here (given the Doyle connection, it's unlikely that Wong was not aware of Yang's work). The White Chick's mother comes home and puts on her old Platters LP. 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' starts to play and plays through to its end over a gorgeous nocturnal associative montage of the mother, the White Chick, the photographer and his girlfriend, and the girlfriend's destructive rage at the photographer's obsession over his images of the White Chick, to end, at dawn, with a red lamp swinging mid-frame in time to the song's final climactic bars and the girlfriend turning to stare into the camera with hurt, furious eyes. A stunning sequence which wordlessly advances the stories of four individual characters while also achieving the kind of wonderfully sensual blend of images and music in which Wong would later specialise.
Yang is one of the few filmmakers to thoroughly explore the expressive potential of the soundtrack, conveying off-screen action through sound or layering different narrative threads in sound and image. A particularly brilliant example in this film is the sequel to the above passage, when the photographer's girlfriend attempts suicide. The (again, wordless, with purely visual storytelling) shots recording her action are accompanied by what we assume to be narration of her suicide note, but as it progresses, this narration becomes less like writing and more like a one-sided conversation, and the question of who she's addressing arises, then we cut to the White Chick talking on the phone, and we realise that we haven't even got the right voice - and then we realise that the context is all wrong too. This isn't a genuine cry for help, it's a hoax cruelly perpetrated on some unknown innocent (and us), and she abruptly hangs up. Again, with dazzling economy in the course of two minutes or less, we've driven one storyline to a kind of provisional resolution while advancing another and providing new understandings of the personalities of two major characters. And the film is full of examples of such inventive and economic storytelling. When the film's two male leads finally meet, their encounter is completely elided, but the information that passes between them is summarised in about twenty seconds by a silent montage of still photos (which we've previously seen being taken) and one moving image flashback. Something of a spoiler alert, but there's also the smart way in which Yang uses a gunshot to fuse two levels of reality together and drive the film to its real conclusion.